Phoenix 2772: Love's Cosmo Zone

There has been a resurrection of interest in Osamu Tezuka in recent years. Through the recent release of Metropolis, based on one of his original stories, and the popularity of the retro classic Astro Boy, a lot of anime fans are starting to discover the man once known as the "god of manga". What's surprising to many American fans, then, is that Astro Boy was not ever considered Tezuka's masterwork in Japan. That title went to the twelve-volume tome called Hi no Tori, which translates as "Phoenix" or "Fire Bird". This humongous tale that spans from the dawn of man to a future unknown captivated the island nation for many years. Because the individual stories stood alone despite intersections between them, they could be enjoyed even though the series was left incomplete by Tezuka's untimely death from stomach cancer in 1989.

Although there were a few different film and television programs made from the tale of Hi no Tori, the only one available in the US is Phoenix 2772: Love's Cosmo Zone. Written by Tezuka himself, the film tells a story within the framework of the manga without actually retelling anything from the comic book. The film, released in 1980, is an interesting collection of thoughts, characters, and ideas, though not all of them gel as well together as one would hope. The biggest problem with the picture is its age. Made in the last gasp of "cartoon-like" feature films, the style is a hard sell to anyone familiar with the fantastic yet realistic designs seen since the early 80s in anime.

Phoenix 2772 starts with twelve minutes without dialogue, much like a silent film, recalling the birth and education of Godah. In this brave new world, children are born in test tubes and are raised by computers and robots. Godah learns the skills that will make him into a great pilot, assisted by the robotic wonder Olga. Everything that Godah needs is provided for him until he eventually goes for training with his automaton companion. He soon realizes that the world is not what he expected--his trainer expects him to kill innocent creatures without reason or compunction. Godah has no interest in this, realizing the value of life and wanting to preserve it.

Despite his trainer's misgivings, Godah is made a pilot by Rock, a sunglassed authoritarian who wants Godah to track down the legendary Phoenix 272. Rock believes the firebird will be able to give him ultimate authority and power. However, things get hairy when Godah falls in love with Leena, a woman forbidden to him by the social structure of their society. He eventually lands in a prison facility, but he escapes with a spaceship and several new companions. With the ever-loyal Olga at his side and strange friends ready to take on the adventure, Godah vows to find Phoenix 272 and put its special powers to use to save the earth from Rock's maniacal designs.

Before I comment on the film itself, I have to give fair warning to anyone who would seek out the English-language version of this motion picture. It is a catastrophe. The film was filmed at 1:78 as evidenced by the credits sequence, but the only version available is horribly edited to 1:33. The film uses both sides of the picture often; rather than panning one way or the other, the editors leave the camera steady. This means that action on both sides of the screen is lost. Normally, pan and scan loses some information but at least includes one half of the picture competently. Not here. Meanwhile, the dub is old-school. Though the actors and actresses emote better than some of their modern counterparts, the dialogue is often just goofy. There are no actual credits during the credit sequence, just music and a still picture for about two minutes. If all of this wasn't insulting enough, the VHS tape is recorded in EP mode, making it a junky looking picture even on the best VCR. (There's also the matter of the film's American title, too, since it is incorrect in every way. The movie doesn't take place in the year 2772, and the Phoenix that Godah seeks is actually number 272, not 2772. But with this many problems, this is a minor issue.)

For those interested in all things retro, Phoenix 2772 might be interesting, but the typical savvy anime viewer of the 21st century will find this a curiosity at best. There are some incredible things at work here, to be certain. The first twelve minutes are incredibly intriguing. Not since 2001 have I seen a modern film attempt to capture the audience without dialogue, and the opening of Phoenix arguably works better than Kubrick's "Dawn of Man" sequence in that film. The creativity here is legion, especially in the myriad bizarre creatures that Tezuka introduces throughout. Environmental themes that could easily have inspired world-renowned director Hayao Miyazaki's legendary outlook are on display. There's a cameo from left field of the amazing surgeon character BlackJack that is intriguing if nothing else than to see that Tezuka's various different stories often collide in interesting ways. You can also see the inspiration for the character of Rock in the film Metropolis from the character of the same name on display here.

Nevertheless, the film is limited by some choices that I believe hurt the film even back during its original release era. First, the animation is quaint. Quaint being a nice word for awful. It's not that it's bad in the sense that many modern anime are, in terms of low cel count and bad inbetweening work. It's bad in the sense that the character styles are extremely dated, and some are almost downright ugly. Thus, it's not always exactly easy to watch. Now some of it is decent, mind you, but not enough to help out the modern viewer. Second, many of the secondary characters are there to fulfill some sort of Disneyesque "cute" factor, and they fall flat. One's like a talking kangaroo with a broom constantly cleaning everything, another is a weird something-or-other that lives in a huge rolling dice, and a third that looks like an oversized green bagpipe with a face. They are annoying in the extreme, and though they try to add comic relief, they make Jar Jar look like Clint Eastwood. Finally, the film just doesn't move fast enough. I fell asleep at least twice trying to get through this thing, despite the fact that I thought the plotline was interesting enough. On the whole, it was more a chore to get through rather than a pleasure.

So is it worth your time? Probably not. Could this film be improved greatly with a good subtitle, a widescreen transfer, and a DVD print? Yes--but it would still be a relic of a different era of filmmaking. I have a great respect for Osama Tezuka, which is what got me through the film despite its problems. However, there is no real question that the manga is by far what made Hi no Tori a Japanese national treasure and not this film. I'd suggest picking up a copy of the portion of the manga translated into English instead if you want to get a taste of Tezuka's lifetime achievement.

Phoenix 2772: Love's Cosmo Zone -- violence -- C